LIVINGSTON – Consider the Yellowstone River.
It rises in the majesty of the nation's first national park, ripples northward through a valley called Paradise, takes a graceful right turn at Livingston and makes a beeline for – North Dakota?
Water knows only the logic of gravity.
Perched here on the Big Bend is a town born of a railroad, where cargo-laden westbound trains need helper locomotives to get over the pass, then roll back empty to the east.
“What we have in this particular spot is a crossroads in the Northern Rockies,” Ed Turner, shaman, was saying on Leap Day.
Turner sat in the lobby of the storied Murray Hotel, built in 1904 and a gunshot victim 75 to 80 years later to manic movie director Sam Peckinpah.
Kathleen and Dan Kaul found need to plaster over the bedroom ceiling of the Murray’s third-floor Peckinpah Suite after they bought the hotel in 1991. Rain had ravaged it to the point you couldn’t tell how many bullet holes were there.
“You can get those little decals – you see them on the back of people’s cars and it looks like a bullet has gone through,” Kathleen Kaul said. “I kind of thought we should put those on the ceiling.”
Better judgment prevailed, but Peckinpah’s aura persists. His films included the classic Western “The Wild Bunch,” and his escapades in the five years he lived at the Murray before his death in 1984 are the stuff of legend.
“By the time he came here, he used a lot of cocaine and was really paranoid,” Kaul said. “He slept with a gun under his pillow and a few times when he’d had too much to drink and just too much of everything, he took his gun and shot holes in the ceiling.”
Ed Turner totes no .44, but he is one of many who remain to lend Livingston a quirkiness it wears as comfortably as a pair of 1970s vintage waffle stompers. He lives at the Murray, was once the hotel’s maintenance man, and performs ghost clearings in Livingston and Bozeman.
Turner came to town with the Church Universal and Triumphant, which bought a 12,000-acre ranch high in the Paradise Valley from Malcolm Forbes in 1981 and made headlines for the next decade or so.
Described in those days as a doomsday cult, the CUT isn’t heard from much these days, though it and many of its members remain an influential presence.
“We’re all kind of intertwined now,” said Debbie Juhnke, who grew up in Livingston.
“I really feel like Livingston is partly its kooky self, and I mean that in a good way, because there are CUT members who are former CUT members but they’re part of the very interesting people who might never have come to this region otherwise,” said Earl Craig, a horseshoer and Montana’s poet laureate.
The Missoulian spent the last day of February and first two of March in Livingston for the latest installment of our Montana A-Z series, which started in Anaconda. We heard Juhnke, an insurance agent and owner of Juhnke’s Montana Junk on Main Street, describe the town as “a Mayberry” and Ned Swofford, a bartender in the historic Sport Bar & Grill, call it “the last bastion of the last best place.”
Seems like everyone had something to say about Livingston’s diversity in livelihoods, lifestyles and passions. We were directed to enough distinctive bars, breweries, bistros, bookstores, museums and galleries to populate a town five times the size of little ‘ol Livingston, population 7,000, give or take, for the last 50 years.
“I do think the wind is a shaping factor here,” said Craig, the farrier/poet. “Whenever you live in a place that there are many, many, many days a year where people are just driven almost to the edge of madness because of the wind, and you get out of your truck and a paper cup comes from who knows where and hits you in the side of the head … That type of wind.”
Hours into our visit, Ed Turner was explaining to photographer Tommy Martino why there are “layers and layers of energy here.”
The railroad folk did a “brilliant thing” when they laid out Livingston in 1882, he said. “It just so happens that the feng shui was perfect, because you have a south-facing hill with water in front of it.”
In Chinese, “feng” means wind and “shui” means water. Feng shui (say "fung shway") is a body of knowledge developed over thousands of years based on the idea that the land is alive and filled with energies.
“Those guys didn’t know anything about feng shui, but they had a sense of the land, and they set up their shops and made up the town because this was halfway between St. Paul and Tacoma,” Turner said. “That’s as much depth as I can convey to you about why to this day the town is so, call it successful, energy-wise. It’s just set up right, and people keep coming here.”
“It does something to the memory,” said Jack Ferris, barber at Mainstreet Cuts. “We have a nice day (and) it is so awesome here. The mountains and everything around are beautiful and the sun is so intense. It’s really a gorgeous place. And then the wind comes up …”
“When the wind goes away there’s this kind of group euphoria that goes through town,” Earl Craig said. “The town’s small enough that you can really feel it.”
The Super Tuesday party at Park County for Bernie Sanders headquarters on East Park Street was warming up as early returns rolled in.
It was a subdued gathering. Across town at the high school, Livingston was trying to come to grips with tragedy. Since Valentine’s Day, four males in this small town had taken their own lives by hanging. The first two were 17-year-old students at Park County High. The others were in their 30s, the second just the day before.
CNN was proclaiming victory in all six Southern states for Hillary Clinton when Margot Kidder stepped up next to the big screen TV and called for attention. Two dozen men, women and one family’s children who were “feeling the Bern” piped down to listen.
“I know it’s been a rough week for Livingston, rough 2 1/2 weeks, so a lot of people are over at the high school,” began Kidder, who many remember as the woman with “the smoky voice and sexy vibe that made her the man from Krypton's main squeeze in four Superman movies in the late '70s and '80s,” as People Magazine once put it.
Kidder and other volunteers opened the Sanders office on their own dimes in October. Then as now, they received no financial help from the Sanders national campaign.
“We’re not yet on the Bernie Sanders national office list because our primary in Montana is last,” Kidder told supporters. “The funds sadly have to be made up in cash, or given in cash. So those are necessary to keep this office open.”
Volunteers were also needed to help staff telephones connected to a database from the Sanders campaign. Already, Kidder said, intern Tyler Austin had made more than 900 calls to voters in other states with pending primaries and caucuses.
“This is my first time with Margot,” said 31-year-old Brandon Tillett of Livingston. “She’s got a lot of energy, and she’s really, really good about knowing how to use her celebrity to bring people in.”
Now 67, Kidder has been a political activist for most of a career that has had dizzying highs and lows. They include a brief marriage to Tom McGuane, the novelist credited (or blamed) for jump-starting the flood of movie stars, writers and artists to Livingston in the 1970s.
More recently, Kidder was among dozens arrested at the White House in a protest of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011. Last year, she won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding performer in children’s programming as Mrs. Worthington in “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour” on the Discovery Family channel.
Kidder said her family members weren’t among the Bernie supporters in the room.
“Just the old grandmother,” she joked. “They think of me as a bit overly zealous.”
“I’ve grown accustomed to the saying, ‘It keeps the wrong kind of people away,’” Brandon Tillett said.
“Some days it just pisses you off. You just can’t think,” said Earl Craig.
Craig was a creative writing student at the University of Montana when he first worked in the Livingston area on a guest ranch in 1991. He moved here in 2001, and has published four books of poems since then. Last fall, he was named Montana’s poet laureate for the next two years.
He has rasped and shoed hundreds of horses to pay the bills. Craig lives with wife, Susan Thomas, at the toe of the Crazy Mountains, which would seem to evoke all kinds of lyrical landscapes. But Earl isn’t comfortable being pegged as a rural or even a regional poet.
“People think that if you live in Montana you must be writing about fishing, hunting and horses all the time,” he said. “Horses find their way in, but so do I have poems written in Chicago where there’s steam coming out of a manhole. That can be just as interesting to me.”
Among the first things he wrote in Livingston described a November night when Craig had a room at the Murray. The wind was blowing a chain against the flagpole outside his window all night long.
“There was this sort of thinly masked kind of Saturday night violence that I was feeling,” Craig said. “You know how it is: It’s Saturday night and it’s past 11, let’s say, and people are staggering around kind of drunk and yelling, and you’re hearing the wind and you’re out yourself a little bit in the bars.
“Stuff like that is just as important to me as sunset and rivers and fishing.”
The Katabatic Brewing Co. website calls Livingston “a drinky town with a wind problem.”
On any given day in Livingston you might see Christopher Paolini stopping by the Second Street post office.
Paolini is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest author of a best-selling book series. He’s 35 now, but was just 15 when he started on the first volume of the “Inheritance Cycle” in the family home in the Paradise Valley. That volume became "Eragon," the movie.
Of course, you might also spot, or could have in the past, any of a number of Livingston’s uncommon share of celebrities. Kidder, and Jeff and Susan Bridges, for sure, but this is or has also been a stomping grounds for the likes of Peter Fonda, McGuane, singer John Mayer, newscaster Tom Brokaw, comedian Rich Hall, poet Jim Harrison, award-winning travel show host Anthony Bourdain, artist Russell Chatham …
Livingston has Beetlejuice for lunch. At least it does on the occasions when Michael Keaton comes over the hill from his place on the West Boulder to dine at Carole Sullivan’s Mustang Cafe. Alas, Keaton was nowhere to be seen last week in the days following his big win for best picture, “Spotlight,” at the Academy Awards.
“This town connects directly with Los Angeles on the Sagittarius Line,” Ed Turner explained. “That’s why the movie stars feel comfortable. They come here for regeneration. It’s just a fact they have.”
“There’s a valley from 100 miles up where (Yellowstone Lake) is, and cold air tends to sink,” said John Bailey. “There’s just a ssssssshhhhh. You’ve got the perfect funnel.”
“I’ve got customers that are 99 and they say, ‘Goddamn wind. I’m leaving here,’ ” said Jack “The Barber” Farris. “They’ve been saying that for years.”
It was late winter, a pale sun shone and the wind was blowing.
Sure, there were hardy wielders of fly rods out on the Yellowstone, but John Bailey was inside his fly shop on West Park talking rivers of memories. If there’s one industry that has replaced the railroad in Livingston, it’s fly fishing, and Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop has been right in the middle of it since 1938.
John Bailey was born in 1947, 11 years after Dan and Helen came to the Upper Yellowstone from New York on their honeymoon. They drove to Montana the following year, John Bailey said, picking up a Chicago sportswriter named Ken Reid on the way to document this fishing heaven.
That same summer of ’37 two brothers were sharing their last fishing trips together farther west, often on the Blackfoot River out of Missoula, before they returned to Chicago.
Norman Maclean went back to his teaching job at the University of Chicago. His brother Paul, after covering the 1937 Montana legislative session, returned to the same school to work as a sportswriter for the university’s press relations office.
Years later, Norman wrote the famous line, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” and fashioned the novelette “A River Runs Through It” around the events leading up to Paul’s brutal murder in Chicago in May 1938.
John Bailey said his dad, who died in 1982, never met Norman Maclean, who died in 1990.
“I remember my father saying he must have passed through here on the train from Chicago all the time,” Bailey said.
He treasures the transcript of a speech Maclean once delivered that heaped lavish praise on Dan Bailey’s influence on the fishing world.
And when it came time in 1991 to shoot the fishing scenes of “A River Runs Through It” on the Gallatin River, John Bailey was hired to show casting techniques to Brad Pitt, who played Paul Maclean, and Craig Sheffer, who played Norman.
Bailey said he spent 10 days on the job in May that year. In September, he and fellow fly-casting expert Jerry Siem were summoned to the studio in Los Angeles for three intense days of film review with director Robert Redford.
“At the end of the second day we see the scenes from the first day,” Bailey recounted. “Jerry and I are sitting in the back and the lines are going just in waves across the screen. We look at each other and say, ‘We’re out. We can’t have our names associated with this.’”
Redford sensed their discomfiture.
“I don’t think he’d said 10 words up till then to me,” Bailey said. “He looked at me and said, ‘That was awful, wasn’t it?’
“I said, ‘Yep.’”
The scene was reshot the same day, with Bailey on the camera side calling the shots.
What you see in the movie, he said, is Pitt’s second fly cast. “You don’t get to see the first bad one.”
“A River Runs Through It” was a hit, Philippe Rousselot won an Oscar for best cinematography, and fishing in Montana hasn’t been the same since.
“Oh, let me tell you, women really came to fly fishing after that,” Bailey said. “But I don’t think it was the movie. I think it was Brad.”